Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is Moffat Really "Behind the Best Dr. Who"?

Steven Moffat & Matt Smith (7606550818)Not too long ago, the second season of Sherlock, the modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes character by Stephen Moffat, was made available for free streaming on pbs.org. I confess that I haven't yet gotten around to watching those episodes, but having thoroughly enjoyed the first season, I'm looking forward to doing so. A friend of mine, helping to spread the word about this development on Facebook, recognized that Moffat has also been responsible for the most recent couple of seasons of Doctor Who. I'm not sure I can quite agree with my friend when he asserts, however, that Moffat is "the mind behind the best Dr. Who."

Now, I agree that Stephen Moffat has done some amazing work, both on Sherlock and on Doctor Who. But I'm hesitant to agree that his couple of years on Doctor Who represent the "best" of its nearly 50-year history. Maybe it's just that I was a fan of Doctor Who before it was "cool" (that is, before the series was revived in 2005), but I just can't help but wonder if my friend is unaware of some of the amazing work that was done in the "Classic" era. Moffat's walking in some very well-worn shoes, and although his work is easily worthy of the role he's taken on, I think it does a disservice to many of the men and women who carried the torch before him (by the way, did you notice that current Doctor Matt Smith carried the literal Olympic torch this past weekend?).

I also feel that "new Who" has some significant faults. Nothing that makes me not want to watch the show, mind you, but things that I wish they could move past. To be fair, much this can be blamed not on Stephen Moffat, but rather on his predecessor, Russell T. Davies (and I will be the first to suggest that Moffat is a far superior show-runner to Davies). However, to the extent that Moffat has continued these trends (which weren't in evidence so much during the "Classic" era), he could do more to stop doing that. For example, there shouldn't be a year-long story arc every year. When this happened in the "Classic" era (the 16th season, "The Key to Time" and the 23rd season, The Trial of a Time Lord), it was the exception. Now it has become the rule. Story lines should be able to stand entirely on their own, without any need to drop in a few random code words ("Bad Wolf"), or wondering about who this "Mr. Saxon" is, or some hint about bees going missing, or why cracks in the space-time continuum keep showing up, or... well, you get the point (I recognize that only that last example is really Moffat's, but the arc for the season after that is so intense that I don't dare mention it in case it would spoil it for someone who hasn't seen it yet)... in some effort to build toward a cataclysmic season-ending event.

Actually, having cataclysmic season-ending events, itself, was pretty unusual in "Classic" Who. For the most part, there was little reason to make a season finale any more "special" than any other episode. Again, there were exceptions of greater or lesser importance throughout the "Classic" show's run (The Evil of the Daleks, closing out Season Four, was supposed to be the final end of the Daleks — although things didn't quite work out that way — and The War Games ended both the Sixth Season and the Second Doctor's tenure. Indeed, most regenerations after that tended to be at the end of the season — although the Sixth Doctor broke that mold on both ends of his tenure, taking the reigns a full story-arc early in Season 21, and leaving at the beginning of Season 24). That's fine. Doing special things once in a while is a very good thing. Just mix it up a bit.

When New Who started up, I was especially annoyed at Davies' over-insistence on sexualizing Doctor Who. It seemed like every companion for a while was in love with the Doctor (not just the women, either! And the main exception, Donna Noble, was so explicitly an exception that they had to remind us of the fact every other episode, somewhat proving the point), and Moffat sadly seems to have continued the trend with current companion Amy Pond (the fact that she loves her husband Rory even more than the Doctor is noteworthy, but not enough to ignore the time she tried to get the Doctor to sleep with her — and she was already engaged to Rory at the time — early in her tenure). I'm not saying the show's suddenly become unsafe for kids (although I know of some who do think so), but rather that I often feel like I'm being hit over the head with New Who's need to promote modern (secular) sexual values.

I'm not saying that I dislike New Who at all. Indeed, a lot of the changes made to the show when it came back in 2005 did more than just "bring the show back from the dead," but breathed new life into the entire franchise, demonstrated by the fact that it is going strong again today, after an absence from television screens for nearly two decades. I'm just saying that I'm of the opinion that not all of the changes have been good ones, and that I'm not ready to say that the Who of today is categorically the "best" Who we have ever seen. There are some pretty enormous shoes the show still has to fill.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Happy Birthday, Goofy!

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the release of Mickey's Revue, a cartoon noteworthy for the first appearance of one "Dippy Dawg." Dippy had a bit part in that cartoon, basically an audience member who annoyed everyone around him with his distinctive laugh. That laugh (and a bit of a name change) soon catapulted the character to cartoon stardom as one of Disney's "top three" most iconic characters, alongside Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, as the world came to fall in love with Goofy.

Goofy is a hard character to pin down in a quick description. Although he is clearly dog-like, Goofy has always been treated as an anthropomorphic character (unlike Mickey's pet, Pluto). Goofy is also unique among well-known Disney characters in that he has regularly been depicted in cartoons as multiple characters simultaneously sharing the screen together (especially in the "How To..." series that officially started in 1942). Although the character had a significant redesign as "George Geef" in a successful and memorable series starting in the 1950's (which also continued the "multiple simultaneous Goofy" phenomenon), the character has since reverted to the loveable, if somewhat dim-witted, personality he had in the previous two decades.

Goofy has had particular importance in my family. My brother, whose artistic talents I've shared before, was drawing Goofy since he was about three years old. Not tracing, not scribbling, not filling in the pages of a coloring book. Drawing. It was apparent even at that age that he was pretty darn good. As my brother's grown up, naturally his expressions have moved beyond the line drawings of his childhood to other pursuits, but he still returns to Goofy from time to time, as this clay sculpture of Goofy's head he created during a family trip a few years ago demonstrates (apologies for the blurry image).

So, how do you plan to celebrate Goofy's 80th birthday! You can start by checking out this interview with current official Goofy voice Bill Farmer at the Disney web site.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Transformers Feature: Speed Stars Stealth Force Leadfoot

I seem to have a small but growing subsection of my Transformers collection. It includes toys that have explicit references to (G.B.) Blackrock.

I've already shared how the inclusion of Blackrock's name on the spoiler influenced me to pick up Power Core Combiner Leadfoot some months ago. Folks who follow me on Twitter may have noticed when I shared a picture of a Wal-Mart exclusive movie Bumblebee that sports the Blackrock name. With the recent addition of this "Stealth Force" version of Leadfoot, I've added yet another Blackrock name-drop. That makes three times Hasbro has used Blackrock's name on a Transformer toy, all within the past couple of years.

Despite living in an era of easy access to news of upcoming toys, I still somehow managed not to be aware that this version of Leadfoot even existed until I saw it on the shelves at Ross a few weeks ago. Given the nature of Ross, this may well mean that I'd missed seeing it at any number of other stores for quite some time already! Alternatively, it could be that Leadfoot suffered a fate similar to Windcharger, and no other retailers had actually wanted the wave of toys that included Leadfoot. It's actually pretty easy for me to imagine this latter scenario. Just as fans hated the Action Masters back in the early '90s for featuring robots that couldn't change into cars, the "Speed Stars" line (which "Stealth Force" is a sub-line under, and which admittedly encompasses more than just Transformers characters) features cars that can't change into robots!1 I know I wouldn't have bought this toy if it weren't for the Blackrock connection.

That's not to say that the toy has no special features. "Stealth Force" cars feature weaponry that pops out when you move a specific part (in Leadfoot's case, you pull back on the spoiler). Simple, to be sure, but I can actually imagine young children having a lot of fun quickly alternating between modes.

Besides being a "Stealth Force" toy, this toy is branded as a "Reveal the Shield" toy,2 meaning that it has a heat-sensitive rubsign that reveals the faction symbol. As with other "Reveal the Shield" toys, the faction really isn't much of a secret. Not only does the packaging explicitly state that Leadfoot is an Autobot, but Leadfoot features an unobscured Autobot symbol on its underside. Admittedly, one can't see that until after purchasing the toy and taking it out of its packaging!

What will Hasbro put the Blackrock name on next?

1Don't let the inclusion of "robot mode" art on the packaging, shown at the top of the page, fool you. The artwork is especially noteworthy, as there isn't a Leadfoot toy anywhere that has a robot mode like this from which this art would have been taken. According to the TF Wiki, this art comes from some concept art created for Mirage, which makes sense given the similar vehicle modes.

2Another element Leadfoot has in common with Windcharger, adding further potential support to my theory that other retailers simply decided not to carry Leadfoot's wave, leaving it to Ross to pick up the slack.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Donkey Kong, Jr.

The most famous videogame character of all time is (with apologies to Pac-Man) Mario. I would therefore be amiss not to feature one of Mario's earliest adventures. Of course, I've already missed the 30th anniversary of the very first Mario game, Donkey Kong, which premiered in 1981. However, when that game first came out, the protagonist did not yet have the name "Mario" (he is referred to as "Jumpman" on the cabinet). The first video game in which Mario is referred to by name is our subject for this month: Donkey Kong, Jr.

The context in which Mario's name first appears also sets the stage for the game. Mario (two of him, oddly enough) is seen raising a caged Donkey Kong to the top of the board, and then moving the cage over to the side. The player is then given instructions to "save your papa!", and the game is on! Notably, Donkey Kong, Jr. is the only time Mario is ever the antagonist, rather than a heroic figure, in a video game (and that's saying something, given that Wikipedia places Mario in over 200 games over his 30+ year history!).

Like its predecessor, Donkey Kong Jr. is a platform game where you try to move your character from the bottom of the board to the top while avoiding various obstacles along the way. The main difference derives from the basic role reversal, whereby you're now controlling the ape rather than the human. Thus, although there is some amount of walking and jumping along platforms (as in Donkey Kong), the bulk of the time is spent climbing and swinging along various vines and chains. On most levels, the idea is to get to an area near the cage, where a single key awaits. Once you get too close to the key, Mario pushes the cage away, and you have to follow him to the next board, eventually reaching the board seen here (the last of any given level), where Junior must push each of the keys to the top of the board from underneath, thereby unlocking a portion of the cage imprisoning Donkey Kong. Once you accomplish this feat, father and son are reunited, and although Mario chases after them in a futile attempt to recapture them, Donkey Kong sends Mario flying across the screen with a well-placed kick. Of course, as with most video games of this era, such victories are fleeting, and you start off with the first stage again, only with greater difficulty (Mario must have recaptured the big ape off-screen, but don't ask me how).

It's already no simple matter just to get Junior across each board safely, but if you really want the big points, you have to take advantage of the fruit that hangs on various portions of each board. As Junior passes over a piece of fruit, it falls down the screen, knocking out any enemies unfortunate enough to be in the way. If you're able to catch multiple enemies with a single piece of fruit, you can get geometrically higher points for each additional enemy caught. Wikipedia cites the current record score at 1,307,500. Wanna try to beat it? Good luck!
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